The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum: a true national treasure.
Since Interleague Play began in 1997, the Astros have played quite a few series with the Royals, including many in Kansas City. Every time we’re scheduled to make a trip here, I’ll hear from friends or fans who will sort of roll their eyes and say something along the lines of “too bad. Not a real exciting city, huh?”
Quite the contrary. Kansas City is a fantastic town, one that has a rich baseball tradition, a gorgeous ballpark and dozens of pockets around the city that are not only fun to explore, but educational, too.
On Tuesday, a group of us hopped into a couple of cabs and headed to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. I’ve been wanting to check it out for years but never made it there during my prior visits. Ten minutes into the tour, I knew it was well worth the wait.
The Negro Leagues were, and are, a huge part of this country’s baseball history. The circumstances under which the league was created are shameful, considering racism prevented African-American players from playing professionally with white players, which forced them to form their own league. But the byproduct of that bigotry — the Negro National League — produced some of the greatest players in baseball history, not to mention powerful legacies that have not been forgotten even though the League disbanded more than a half-century ago.
Normally, the Museum does not permit picture-taking, but the staff was nice enough to make an exception for our group so that we could share it with you. Thanks to Vice President of Curatorial Services Raymond Doswell for giving his time and granting interviews for me, FS Houston’s Greg Lucas and radio announcer Brett Dolan.
While I couldn’t capture everything at the Museum, I hope you’ll enjoy this modest sampling. And if you’re ever in Kansas City, do yourself a favor and set aside a couple of hours to tour the Negro League Baseball Museum. It’s worth the trip.
The Museum is located in the 18th & Vine historic district that was the center for black culture and life in Kansas City from the late 1880s to 1960s. The area was once considered a hub for homeowners, businesses, jazz music and baseball enthusiasts.
Rube Foster, a native of Calvert, Texas and the former player, manager and owner of the Chicago American Giants, is known as the “Father of Black Baseball.”
He formed the National Negro League in 1920, during a meeting held at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City. The Negro League Museum, a 10,000 square foot shrine to the league, stands only a block or two from that YMCA.
In 1929, Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson mortgaged his property and borrowed to build baseball’s first functional lighting system to facilitate night ball games. Wilkinson sensed that because working people, black and white, were unable to come to games during weekdays, night baseball would increase attendance. He was right. Night ball consistently drew full houses.
(The Major Leagues caught onto night baseball five years later. On May 23, 1935, the Reds and Cardinals played the first Major League night game at Crosley Field in Cincinnati.)
This is the first Negro Leagues game sweater, from 1924. The Eastern Colored League Hilldale club of Philadelphia played the Kansas City Monarchs, and the Hilldale team had special navy sweaters made to wear for the series. It’s the oldest known clothing item from the Negro Leagues.
Most of the quotes pulled out of magazine and newspaper articles that are now on display need no explanation. It’s equal parts sad and despicable how these players were treated as they barnstormed from city to city.
A Kansas City Monarchs uniform.
Satchel Paige’s emergence onto the scene brought a charisma that was brand new to the now-thriving Negro Leagues in the mid-1930s. Known as the greatest pitcher in the history of the Negro Leagues, Paige once strung together 64 scoreless innings, won 21 in a row and compiled a 31-4 record in 1933. A true showman with a personality that engaged all fans, black and white, Paige reached the Major Leagues in 1948, a year after Jackie Robinson broke in with the Dodgers.
Larry Doby became the first black player to play in the American League, 11 weeks after Robinson debuted with the Dodgers.
The famous picture of Robinson signing his first Major League contract, with Dodgers GM Branch Rickey.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum would not be complete without a tribute to the Negro Leagues greatest ambassador, former Kansas City Monarch first baseman and manager Buck O’Neil. No one created more awareness about the Negro Leagues than this gentleman, and thousands of baseball fans who otherwise might have paid little attention to this part of history have instead found it fascinating. O’Neil made us appreciate the Negro Leagues and prompted us to want to learn more.
The fact that O’Neil is not in the National Baseball Hall of Fame is a sore subject with me. If your Hall of Fame eligiblity is based on contributions to the game, then O’Neil’s exclusion is a true travesty. I’ll stop there. It’s been such a pleasant experience and I’d hate to end this blog with my head exploding.
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